Alone in the desert gazing at sand dunes just barely silhouetted against the night sky, I understood the meaning of the word “timeless.”
It had nothing to do with a “timeless” piece of jewelry or the “timeless” little black dress. In that moment, I felt at once connected to the past, present and future. I felt the echoes of those who had crossed this landscape millennia before me and I sensed the shadows of those to come.
Never mind that I was only 185 miles from the 21st-century commerce taking place in Amman and even closer to the 5-star resorts and spas that line the Dead Sea. Or that the port city of Aqaba was just an hour away. For a few quiet minutes, I was at one with my surroundings.
Then I turned and walked back to camp.
I was at Wadi Rum in southwestern Jordan. Described by T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) as “vast, echoing and Godlike,” the striking desert expanse comprises 280 square miles of sand punctuated by soaring sandstone monoliths. Archaeological finds — stone utensils, arrowheads, inscriptions carved into rock faces — point to settlements as far back as Paleolithic times. Even today, Wadi Rum remains home to nomadic tribes known as Bedouins (“desert dwellers”) who occupy themselves herding livestock — and more recently, herding people.
While Jordan’s Bedouin population has declined in recent decades as new generations seek employment in city settings, a number of tribes, especially those in the south, remain true to their nomadic heritage. But entrepreneurs exist even within the boundaries of their patriarchal society, and some of those forward-thinking individuals have created a cross-over existence, trading camels for 4x4s and herding tourists instead of sheep or cattle.
I started my adventure at the Rest House, a concrete-block outpost located where the paved highway that connects Wadi Rum to city centers north and south gives way to shifting desert trails. Looking a bit like a 7-Eleven on the surface of the moon (Wadi Rum is also known as the “Valley of the Moon”), the Rest House was the de facto headquarters for excursions into the desert at the time of my visit.
It has since been replaced by a new visitors’ center near the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the striking and oft-photographed mountain formation that inspired the title of T.E. Lawrence’s account of his experience as a British soldier serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks of 1916 to 1918.
This official visitors’ center, complete with comfort facilities, information services, interpretation halls, restaurants and craft shops, now serves as the main gateway to the protected nature reserve. It is the primary point of entry for all visitors traveling by 4×4 whether in an organized tour group or as individuals. The Rest House is still operating as a second base of sorts with a small restaurant and a campground (and camping equipment including tents, bedding and mattresses for rent) in addition to showers and comfort stations.
I had pre-arranged my overnight excursion with a group of six or seven other first-time desert campers, but travelers who prefer a more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience can show up at the visitors’ center or the Rest House and negotiate a tour with guides on site. Options include rock-climbing, daytrips via 4×4 or on camelback, overnight camping or multi-day itineraries.
My camping trip itinerary was a package deal including an excursion into the desert with stops at highlights, all camping equipment, meals and even entertainment. (I’ll get to that later.) We piled into our assigned 4x4s, grabbed on tight and hit the road with a bang, barreling through the desert while marveling at the almost surreal landscape. We’d stop abruptly in front of rock faces where the guide led us through crevices for an up-close look at Paleolithic graffiti and reach for our cameras to catch scenes of traditionally dressed Bedouins crossing the desert on camelback.
By late afternoon, we were sunburned, thirsty and tired; but we had one last stop before heading to camp. Like so many places around the world where the landscape ends at the horizon, watching the sun set is a daily ritual at Wadi Rum. So much so that an official map of the desert distributed by the Jordan Tourism Board lists two “official” sunset sites — one for winter and one for summer.
As if drawn by a magnet, people on camelback, backpacking rock climbers and tourists crammed into Jeeps converged on the site and began scaling the rock surface. The eclectic group included Westerners dressed in shorts and T-shirts and locals in the traditional dishdasha and head coverings. I distinctly remember the stunningly simple image of two young men standing side by side watching the sun set. One was a shirtless, suntanned Westerner with sunglasses raised on the top of his head. The other was a dark-haired local wearing a traditional, full-length white robe.
As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, we crawled back down the rock face and into the 4x4s for the short ride to camp — a virtual palace in the desert. While we had been out touring, guides assigned to the camp had created a Bedouin enclave. I’ll admit “palace” might be too grand a word to describe the setting, but our overnight accommodations included individual tents furnished with rugs, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags set in a semi-circle facing a true Bedouin-style shelter furnished with handmade rugs, pillows galore, lanterns and, of course, a narghilè (a traditional water pipe). A candlelit path led to makeshift outhouses discreetly shielded with flowing fabric.
While our guides prepared our evening feast, we gathered in the Bedouin tent to lounge and share memories of our day in the desert. Sated after devouring a cornucopia of grilled meat and vegetables, we reclined into the soft pillows, drowsing to the strains of a rababah, a traditional musical instrument comprised of a small sound box and a few taut strings played using a small bow.
Lulled into complacency by a good meal, a warm fire and soft music, it seemed only natural to accept when one of the guides offered the narghilè. In that moment, reclining on soft cushions scattered atop handmade rugs in a Bedouin tent deep in the desert night, I casually inhaled from a traditional water pipe, feeling connected by tradition to those who had gone before and those still to come.
Info to Go
Located 20 miles south of Amman, Queen Alia International Airport (AMM) is the major gateway for international flights. The drive from Amman to Wadi Rum via Desert Highway takes about four hours. Flight time from Amman to Aqaba (AQJ), less than one hour south of Wadi Rum, is about 45 minutes. For information, visit www.visitjordan.com.
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